Advocates: CT pot industry must favor ex-marijuana criminals

Minority communities that for generations have been targeted by law enforcement would receive major assistance to get into the marijuana business, under a plan that Gov. Ned Lamont will consider as he proposes full legalization.

The plan by a task force of lawmakers, community leaders and state offcials marks the latest evolution of a thorny topic – equity and righting past injustices – in the multi-year campaign to legalize adult-use cannabis, which Lamont campaigned on in 2018.

It includes a fist-ever recommendation that for every two retail licenses awarded, at least one would be given in Black and brown and lower-income communities.

People convicted or imprisoned in the past for marijuana-related crimes would get preference under the proposals from the group, which includes cannabis advocates, members of under-served communities and clergy, as well as state economic and consumer protection officials. That’s a way to give back to neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected in what amounted to a failed, 80-year war on marijuana use and sales, leaders of the group said.

The proposals would be reviewed by a study commission set up as part of legislation that leading pro-cannabis lawmakers hope Lamont will include in his two-year budget that will be announced next week.

“I hope the governor takes seriously the recommendations of the task force,” said Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, a proponent of adult-use cannabis who has watched the legislation develop, then fail, in recent years. “The last couple of months we have spent a lot of time in a robust discussion aimed at undoing decades and decades of punishing minority communities for a victimless crime.”

Elliott, a member of the informal group, said Tuesday that under the plan, much of the funding for the adult-use cannabis program would go to making sure minority candidates obtained a market stake. To be included in the preferred group, applicants or members of their families must have been involved in the criminal justice system, according to a draft of the qualifications.

Cannabis prosecutions and imprisonments have disproportionately affected minority communities, according to studies by the ACLU and others.

Elliott, with the support of Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, believes there are enough votes this year in the state House of Representatives to approve the measure. In 2019 the two-part legislation was approved in the legislature’s committee structure but was never brought to floor debates in the House and Senate. The 2020 session was abandoned in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The recommendations of the task force include requirements that the number of so-called equity licenses would equal the number of other licenses submitted by entrepreneurs. Zero-interest loans are also recommended for the participants in the equity program, and grants would include training courses and wide-ranging business-creation support, from real estate acquisition to tax compliance. There would also be income requirements.

There are currently equity programs in Massachusetts, Los Angeles and Oakland, California that the task force sees as possible models.

Potential business opportunities include retail dispensaries, transportation and even delivery services, all of which would be regulated by the state Department of Consumer Protection, which operates the state’s eight-year-old medical cannabis program, with nearly 50,000 patients. Officials from that agency, as well as the Department of Economic and Community Development, are also on the informal task force, as is a top Lamont aide, Jonathan Harris, a former state senator and consumer protection commissioner.

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who as co-chairman of the legislative Judiciary Committee has been a leading proponent of adult-use marijuana legislation, said Tuesday that his panel has raised a general bill for a public hearing. “We could do our own bill, but we certainly reserve our right to review concepts in the purview of the committee,” he said Tuesday. “At this point we are waiting to see what the governor proposes.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT


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